Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library
  PREVIOUSNEXT  

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Poetry of the Early Twentieth Century
Critical Introduction by John Erskine (1879–1951)
 
THE MOST obvious distinction of the poetry written in Europe and America since 1900 is the conscious theorizing which has produced it. It is a common thing for poetry to spring from a theory of life, but twentieth-century verse has sprung for the most part from theories about poetry. Most contemporary writers have engaged in a deliberate discussion of what subjects are proper for the poetic art, from what angle these subjects should be treated, and in what rhythms and verse forms. In other ages, in the Renaissance or in the period of Romanticism, when a criticism of life has fascinated the imagination, whatever innovations have occurred in literature have seemed but casual and spontaneous illustrations of that criticism; but in the twentieth century it is hardly too much to say that the poetry has chiefly been written for purposes of literary or æsthetic demonstration, rather than as a by-product of a direct zest in life. In most European countries, as well as in America, it is usual to-day to speak of Walt Whitman as the beginner or the prime encourager of this modern tendency; at least he showed the way to the discovery of new poetic principles, and to the conscious illustration of them. But Whitman is too big a man to be included in his own theories; and furthermore, when one says that he began the modern movement in poetry, it is of course understood that not all who have been influenced by him are his admirers—since many a poet has been thrown by his precept and example into a determined antipathy to him and all his works. But whether for admiration or for controversy his influence is the strongest in contemporary verse. Other prophets less dramatic in their fame have undoubtedly added their persuasions to his in this matter of poetic theorizing. In England, for example, certain of Walter Pater’s ideas seem to emerge from time to time in writers not to be dismissed as academic, who yet seem bent on illustrating the theorem that all art should approximate the condition of music. The main point is that practically no poet has written in the last seventeen years without some poetic philosophy or principle to demonstrate. Of course the normal changes of taste over any period of time would show certain reactions from democratic or natural subject matter, such as Walt Whitman employed, to the æsthetic and sensitive inner life which Pater made the subject of his writing, and further reactions from the æsthetic philosophy of Pater back to the naturalistic theories of Whitman; and in between these extremes the pendulum would mark off many a degree. The peculiarity of the poetry written since 1900 is that the entire arc of the pendulum seems to be present at once, that consciously all standards of poetic taste are championed at one time, so that it would be rash to say what school of poetic theory is in the ascendency. The only safe criticism is that all schools are based on conscious theory, and that spontaneous poetry has ceased for the time.  1
  Yet the poetic chaos of these years has its unities, some of them very interesting from the historical if not always from the literary point of view. One of the conscious theories which seem common to recent poets in all lands is that their particular country is under some obligation to produce poetry; that since poetry has always been a natural flowering of human experience, they must manage somehow to see that their place and time be not ignominiously bare of this product. In lands moved by a conscious nationalism, this persuasion has joined itself with the ambition to invent or recover a poetic past, to patronize the domestic myths, to praise the native landscape, and to disregard, unfortunately, the currents of art and life elsewhere. The most conspicuous illustration of this persuasion is the revival of Irish poetry, in which W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge have been the creative geniuses, and Douglas Hyde and Lady Gregory the scholars. Nowhere else has the resolution to furnish a country with native poetry met with such success as in Ireland in the last twenty years, nor can the vogue of what seems a rather dubious pseudo-antiquarianism in this Celtic school be readily understood without some appreciation of the contemporary resolve to be at once poetic and national.  2
  The amount of verse put out in these recent years has moreover been prodigious, and criticism has naturally been fascinated by the tantalizing if not very hopeful task of finding some one theory to explain the directions the various poetic resolves have taken. Perhaps in every country, but notably in Germany, in France, and in America, there have been frequent summaries of contemporary work, sometimes in the form of anthologies, sometimes in critical estimates—in either case, with as much consciousness of assisting in a poetic revival as the contemporary poets have when they write. The first of the anthologies to reckon with modern poetry in this conscious way was the ‘Moderne Dichter-Charaktere,’ edited by Wilhelm Arent, with prefaces by Hermann Conradi and Karl Henckell, Berlin, 1885. “We appeal to the coming century!” is the motto of the volume. This anthology, as the prefaces explained, and as the selections amply illustrated, was a summary of the naturalistic movement, just beginning; it signalized the breaking with literary conventions, both as to themes and as to treatment, and the welcoming of a free, open, spontaneous singing—spontaneity of the kind which is introduced by critical prefaces. As a landmark in the domain of contemporary art, this anthology is still of great interest, containing as it does selections from the work of Julius and Heinrich Hart, Arno Holz, Conradi, Erich Hartleben, Karl Henckell, and others.  3
  One of the most ambitious attempts at a critical reckoning with contemporary poetry is Arthur Moeller-Bruck’s ‘Die Moderne Literatur,’ Berlin, 1902—a series of careful studies of such writers as Gerhart Hauptmann, Richard Dehmel, Johannes Schlaf, Arno Holz, Stefan George, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Frank Wederkind. In the strong tide of nationalism which flows through literature in recent decades it is vain to expect a title like ‘Modern Poetry’ or ‘Modern Literature’ to refer to any writers outside the author’s country; though Moeller-Bruck is too well-trained not to realize that literature to-day spreads over all boundaries and must be studied as one phenomenon in the world, and though he therefore makes intelligent references to Maeterlinck and to Whitman, who were indeed the inspiration of some of the authors he studies, yet he treats his subject on the whole as though modern literature were a German event. A more profitable significance can be observed in his disposition to ascribe to each writer a preconceived theory of his own work.  4
  The national prepossession is seen also in Tancrède de Visan’s ‘L’Attitude du Lyrisme Contemporain,’ Paris, 1910,—a collection of essays on French lyrists. The author is interested, however, in demonstrating that the theories of art and life which guided the poets of his study were, so to speak, unconscious theories; after examining the work of a number of poets, such as Francis Vielé-Griffin, Henri de Régnier, Emile Verhaeren, Paul Fort, Albert Mockel, and André Gide, he points out that though they wrote without collaboration or collusion, they all illustrated in their spontaneous emotions the attitude to life which is formally expressed in Bergson’s philosophy; and he concludes that the French lyric of to-day is therefore a true register of the national spirit. The value of this brilliant little book is chiefly in the stimulus it provides for one’s thoughts on the whole phenomenon of modern verse; as a hypothesis to explain the spiritual tendency of the lyric in France, it loses credit when we observe that it omits a number of poets like Angellier, who could hardly be made to illustrate the hypothesis. In the United States during the present year, 1917, Mr. Lloyd Morris has gathered statements from about fifty contemporary poets as to their aims in writing. His book, ‘The Young Idea’ demonstrates that all of these writers have quite conscious aims and very clearly thought-out criticisms of contemporary verse, but that their aims and their criticisms do not agree. Miss Harriet Monroe and Miss Alice Corbin Henderson, editors of Poetry, brought out also in 1917 an anthology of ‘The New Poetry,’ a selection from the work of American and English writers which happily supplements Mr. Morris’s book. The preface which Miss Monroe contributes is incorrect and misleading in several statements as to the ancestry of the modern movement—in America the apostles of the new poetry have a way of improvising their literary history—but the selection of poems is admirable, quite the best that has been made of the contemporary movement in the United States. This anthology had been preceded by three collections of Imagist verse, ‘Some Imagist Poets,’ Boston, 1915—with the same title in 1916 and 1917. In 1916 appeared ‘Others: An Anthology of the New Verse,’ New York; and for several years Mr. W. S. Braithwaite has made an annual appraisal of verse-writing in America, in his ‘Anthology of Magazine Verse.’  5
  This self-consciousness of the appreciation as well as of the writing of poetry to-day has multiplied anthologies and poetry magazines, poetry shops and poetry theatres. There are anthologies of university poems in England and America, anthologies of poetry for different sections of various countries, and of course anthologies of war-poetry. The poetry magazines in all parts of Europe and America have been too numerous to mention; most of them have had a short career, but a few, notably Miss Monroe’s Poetry established at Chicago in 1912, have provided consistent and important vehicles for definite schools of poets—in this case for the Imagists.  6
  In the joy of discovering a rational account of their art some of the poets have cared like Whitman himself to emphasize the physical basis of life somewhat to the exclusion of the spiritual significance. Those who have made this emphasis have often been thoroughly spiritual-minded in their attitude toward life, and whatever exaggeration they have managed to achieve in their verse seems to be more often an overconscious bearing down upon one end of their theory than a just expression of themselves. At the other extreme many poets have emphasized the spiritual meaning of life to the exclusion of the basis of that meaning in common experience, and thereby they have made poetry seem rather a contemplation of mythical or future worlds than a natural flowering out of this one. If the great poet may be described as the writer who unconsciously in the sanity of his temperament sees both the facts of life and their meaning, then it would be fair to add that many twentieth-century writers do occasionally hit upon this balance, so that a number of individual poems might be selected from the total production of the last seventeen years to illustrate as noble a sanity as the poetic imagination is ever likely to furnish. But we have no one poet who constantly or characteristically preserves any such poise, and the first rough distinction one might make among the poets to-day is between those who attend too much to the crude facts of experience, and those who attend exclusively to the meaning of life without much regard to the facts.  7
  In both the naturalistic and the metaphysical schools individual writers have encouraged certain new ideals of rhythm and metre, evolved out of the twentieth century deliberate search for naturalness. The most important of these ideas has been connected with the æsthetic theory of Benedetto Croce, but it shows itself in many writers who can have had no contact directly with the Neapolitan philosopher. This ideal is of a complete unity between the subject and the form; it suggests that any idea completely grasped will furnish inevitably the proper form of its expression. Most innovations to-day in rhythm, in stanza form or in diction, rest upon this doctrine, so that the most scrupulous artists are reassured by the consciousness of their own sincerity, and those artists who seem to be less scrupulous have a warrant ready to hand for their vagaries. “That is what I meant to say” or, “That is the way the idea came to me,” is the modern retort to criticism of technique. When we have therefore divided poetry to-day into the intensely naturalistic or the intensely metaphysical groups, we may add at once a third class, who with qualities in either of these schools are yet chiefly remarkable for the freedom of their verse forms and for the confidence in their own innovations. There are also, of course, a group of poets, if one may call them a group, who try to follow the old sanity, who try to see life steadily and whole, and who are yet willing to experiment as good craftsmen with any developments, in the technique of their art.  8
  The naturalistic school, if the term may be applied to those who have emphasized the crude facts of life, of course begins with Whitman in modern poetry. The critics whose reading extends one hundred years back are likely to say that realism did not begin with Whitman, but that George Crabbe, for one, developed the material with which these modern naturalists have been chiefly concerned—the pictures of poverty and society, the hard aspects of city and country life, and the brutal facts of the human physique. But the peculiarity of Whitman’s realism as of all this group in the twentieth century, is that its close attention to fact comes less from observation than from a philosophical persuasion reinforced by conscientious research. The difference between such modern poets as Verhaeren, for example, or Richard Dehmel, and the earlier realists, is much the difference between Zola, let us say, and the poet Crabbe,—one representing the facts which documents give authority for, the other picturing the facts he had seen. With all his immense zest for life, Whitman’s contact with fact was entirely overlaid and directed by his rather formless philosophy; and poets of the naturalistic school ever since have been in the highest degree artificial, in each case likely to mix sentimentality or fancy or some other personal reaction to life, with their realism. Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian, offers the readiest illustration. His artistic life seems to have been governed by the ambition to give his country a place in poetry; and his successive attempts to discover the soul of Belgium, first in its paintings, then in its monasteries, then in its history, and finally in its centers of industry, are all evidence of a philosophy rather than of a spontaneous poetizing of life. It is true that in his various attempts to render the life of Belgium he strove as Whitman did to base his interpretation first on fact, often on unnecessarily crude fact; but the total impression of his very beautiful work is that though a naturalist by intent, he was in native gifts a mystic; and the only historical representation his poetry gives us of the life of our own time is in that central determination of his to write naturalistic poetry. Dehmel, an artist of very different equipment, began his writing also in a vein of vigorous, even shocking, realism; but as he developed his unusual lyric gift, he showed his affinity with artificial rather than naturalistic worlds, with such fanciful renderings of life as we recognize in the paintings of Max Klinger or Böchlin. Other naturalistic poets in Germany from whom Dehmel perhaps derived his original impulse—imitators of Whitman, such as Johannes Schlaf—illustrate the same point, that naturalism with them is an effect of the will, that they are convinced of the efficacy of naturalism as an æsthetic theory, and that without such a theory they would probably have written in more sentimental or idealistic moods.  9
  The same curious phenomenon in the frank or naturalistic school of poetry appears in England in such work as Henley’s or John Davidson’s. The attempt to render London life or to render aspects of suffering with utter vitality is in both these men an artistic tendency pursued somewhat at the expense of their natural instincts. The result is often a forced note of brutality which one learns to correct by the finer passages in the rest of their work. John Davidson in particular illustrates this sacrifice of a native disposition in the interest of realism. His early plays and especially his prose romance, ‘Perfervid,’ showed before 1890 that his gift was for romantic extravaganza and caprice, but in the early nineties his volumes of verse, ‘In a Music Hall,’ ‘Fleet Street Eclogues,’ and ‘Ballads and Songs,’ were deliberate attempts to get the ear of the public with a resolute and uncompromising statement of unpleasant fact. That he did make his effect is beyond dispute; yet his best work in the ballad period is marred by just such a brutal note, just such a strained overtone, as would come only from the singer who is somewhat untrue to his own nature; and his later fanciful plays and his various ‘Testaments’ in this century showed a partial reversion to his true and too long neglected mood.  10
  In 1910 John Masefield wrote his ‘Everlasting Mercy,’ and gave realism a new impetus in English verse. The character who speaks in this fine poem is a curious mixture of sentiment, reflection, and brutal matter-of-fact. It might well have been thought that the portrait was dramatic, peculiar to the circumstances of this poem, if Mr. Masefield in his later work had not returned to the wistfulness of the portrait, often without any suggestion of its hardness. The beautiful sonnets in ‘Good Friday and Other Poems,’ 1916, disclose perhaps the true preoccupation of this poet’s nature—a brooding upon the intellectual and spiritual mystery of life; the crude force of the ‘Everlasting Mercy,’ of ‘The Widow in the By-Street,’ 1912, and of ‘Dauber,’ 1914, seem now to have been excursions in a theoretical field. The same general comment applies to the work of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, except that his realism is somewhat less violent and more natural than Masefield’s, and he has shown less disposition to depart from it. ‘Borderlands’ and ‘Thoroughfares,’ 1914, ‘Daily Bread,’ 1916, and ‘Fires,’ 1916, show a consistent sympathy with the problems of modern life, chiefly in the more primitive aspects of it.  11
  In America Walt Whitman has been much more profoundly appreciated than his enthusiastic admirers sometimes will admit. It is customary among them to cite him as another illustration of the rejected poet in the commercial atmosphere. The understanding of Whitman and the increasing appreciation of him has been as remarkable in the United States as elsewhere. It is true, nevertheless, that the naturalistic vogue which sprang up in the nineties in England and at the same time or earlier on the Continent, has reached American poetry only recently. The first and in some respects the finest exponent of it, is Edward Arlington Robinson, in whose early books, such as ‘Captain Craig,’ 1902, some few critics were astute enough to recognize a new method in our verse. These poems of Mr. Robinson’s were almost conversational in tone, yet thoroughly alive and dramatic, and in spite of their humble manner, not without the magic of true poetry. Mr. Robinson’s reputation was more than sustained by his later volumes, ‘The Town Down the River,’ 1910, and ‘The Man Against the Sky,’ 1916. It fell to Edgar Lee Masters, however, to practice the naturalistic method with sufficient energy to catch the popular attention. ‘The Spoon River Anthology,’ 1915, is probably the most striking book published in America in recent decades. Whether or not its contents can be called poetry or verse in any sense, undoubtedly it does give a powerful rendering of American life—with somewhat exaggerated emphasis upon physical facts, but with humor and intellectual interpretation. The bitterness of the volume, the hardness of its implied outlook on life, suggested at once that Mr. Masters was probably a sentimentalist at heart, since it is the sentimental poet usually who is most grim when he tries to be real; and Mr. Masters’s later volumes have lent color to this apprehension. In ‘Songs and Satires,’ 1916, and ‘The Great Valley,’ 1916, his grasp of American life seems to be lessening, and in its place appears a romantic interest. Robert Frost in his ‘North of Boston,’ 1914, won public attention to a degree second only to Mr. Masters, and his success was the more encouraging since his art entirely denies itself the rhetorical brilliance or the cynical wit of ‘The Spoon River Anthology.’ He is the nearest follower of Edward Arlington Robinson in rendering very quiet aspects of life with great vitality and in a conversational manner; yet even his realism has the characteristic artifice of contemporary writing. He applies it to only one subject matter, the life of remote country districts, and his central interest seems to be less in the subject matter than in the cadence of his versification. He is so far at least illustrating his own theories of poetry; whether or not he will write poetry for its own sake remains to be seen. His most recent volume, ‘Mountain Interval,’ 1916, is a continuation of the themes and the methods of ‘North of Boston.’  12
  In contrast with the naturalistic school, certain poets have been mentioned who choose to stress the spiritual meaning of life somewhat to the exclusion of the ordinary facts of experience. Many of these poets have a special interest in religion, and as a whole they seem to carry on, so far as English literature is concerned, the tradition of Christina Rossetti. Such poets as Francis Thompson in England, John B. Tabb in America, and Charles Péguy and Henri Franck in France, will serve as illustrations. In all of these cases the poet is so spontaneous in his emotions that it seems hard not to call his writing and his ideals natural in every sense; yet though he is at home in his religion, his religion is hardly at home in the modern world. The marks of this school are a very delightful familiarity with sacred and religious ideas, a certain elevation and intimacy of spirit, and at the same time a lack of contact with life as it is. In this tendency to retreat from life, to use poetry as an escape rather than as a flowering out of experience, these particular writers show their affinity with others of the school who are not primarily interested in religion. The larger group to which they belong turns its back upon the modern world, and indeed upon any phase of life except inner experiences, which they choose to represent not as the product of an outer world, but as a world in themselves. They are connected in spirit with those modern schools of painting which seek to represent psychological or æsthetic effects with the minimum attention to the causes of those effects, which seek to paint our reactions to a scene without painting the scene, as though one were to produce an echo without a sound. The attractiveness of this school lies in the charm which spiritual elevation always has for the sensitive and the serious. The danger of it is that wherever it has appeared before in literature, its tendency, starting from a surrender of life, has been in the direction of a speedy decline in truth and in power. Not only Christina Rossetti but also her more famous brother Dante Gabriel and the prose master Walter Pater have been inspirations in English literature for this sort of work; the contemporary writers in this vein, however, follow no models, and can be understood best in reference to their own time—they illustrate a perhaps inevitable reaction from the too realistic emphasis upon the facts of life. It is curious that Whitman himself in the course of his development illustrated a similar reaction, since his early verse stressed the physical basis of life, and his later poems, such as the ‘Passage to India,’ emphasized the mystical reaches of inner experiences. In France, Charles Péguy, remembered chiefly perhaps because of his pathetic death at the beginning of the war, illustrates what a kindling of spiritual interest may follow years of convinced skepticism and—paradoxically—of enthusiastic search for the scientific grip on life. Probably the sentimentality of Péguy’s nature, which appears in its loveliest form in his writings immediately before the war, was the prime cause of his vehement devotion to purely socialistic propaganda in earlier years. In Germany such a poet as Stefan George represents the reaction from the naturalistic lyric of Detlev von Liliencron. To find a poet so modern as George reincarnating an almost Greek spirit of artistic restraint, and combining it with a quite un-Greek disposition to retreat from simple contact with life and to take refuge in art—that is, in experience at second hand rather than in the crude flow of actual events—is for an English reader to think of Rossetti’s work or Lander’s. To find such a modern poet as Rainer Maria Rilke turning all his experience into exquisitiveness of sound, into lyric strains which charm us for their own sake, is for the English reader to remember Pater and his doctrine already mentioned, that art tends to the condition of music—all art, and by implication, all life also. In England it has been rather surprising to find a similar tendency, especially in the impact of the war, to turn aside from a frank facing of experience to a traditional meditation upon disembodied ideas. Such a tendency shows itself, for example, in the anthology, ‘The Spirit of Man,’ 1915, collected by the poet laureate, Robert Bridges—an anthology which would indicate at least a personal preference on the part of the compiler for those traditions which fortify us against life rather than for those outlooks which interpret it. In his preface Mr. Bridges says specifically that the spiritual life is at the base of all art—a remark which seems to mean that art has its roots in our spiritual intuitions, whereas it would perhaps be sounder to say, if one were intent upon interpreting the whole of experience, that art is simply one form of the expression of life. In this particular case the emphasis upon the note of surrender is due probably to the war; yet in all Mr. Bridges’s work, exquisite and scholarly though it is, the disposition shows itself to meditate upon life from a distance.  13
  Akin in subject matter to either of these schools, are the writers who have paid what seems to be special attention to style. This attention has taken in the first place the form of a simplified poetic diction—a tendency to carry over into verse the ordinary speech of man in daily life. It will be remembered that Wordsworth’s first conception of reform in poetic diction was a similar hope to preserve the diction of ordinary talk in poetry. The modern followers of this ideal have not, like Wordsworth, allowed themselves to be persuaded that some selection is useful even in ordinary talk. When the attention to style has not taken this specific direction of simplified speech, it has attempted to simplify rhythms and to throw over traditional versification. The impulse toward this reform has also come from a faith in naturalness, a faith that the rhythms of ordinary speech, like the diction, could be transferred with slight change to poetic uses. In the matter of rhythm, however, the tendency to be radical has not flourished to excess outside of the United States. One of the notable pronouncements of radical verse-reform appeared in the ‘Notes Sur la Technique Poétique,’ by Georges Duhamel and Charles Vildrac, Paris, 1912. In this little book, with great wit and much insight into the principles of rhythm, these young poets proclaimed an attack upon the verse traditions in their language which they thought too rigid. But it is one thing, obviously, to advise a more than romantic liberation of the French alexandrine, and quite another thing to go to the excess of flatness practiced by some free-verse writers in America. Imagism appeared in England practically at the same time as the discussions of verse reform in France, but as English verse had already erred perhaps on the side of a too great freedom, since Rossetti and Swinburne had taught the younger men how to take liberties with the natural accent and rhythm of English verse, there was little further to be gained by reform of English prosody; that part of the imagists’ propaganda, therefore, which called for freer rhythms and stanzas, rapidly dropped out of English attention. The principles of the school, thus deriving from France through England, came to America in 1913 through a report of English imagism which a correspondent sent to Poetry, the Chicago magazine already mentioned. The imagists for at least a year published their work chiefly in this journal. They were noted at first for a preference for classical or other remote subjects, for liberation from ordinary standards of metre, for absence of rhyme, and for a fortunate brevity. The school has had a second lease of life, however, under the leadership of Miss Amy Lowell, herself an accomplished verse writer, but more distinguished as the exponent of this propaganda. Under her direction imagism has stood for a very clear-cut vision of life; for hospitality toward all subject matter—in practice chiefly for fanciful subjects that can be treated realistically; and for the cadence of the spoken or prose phrase rather than for the rhythm of verse. She has published, in illustration of imagist principles, and with prefatory remarks, ‘A Dome of Many-Colored Glass,’ 1912, ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed,’ 1914, and ‘Men, Women, and Ghosts,’ 1916. Besides these volumes of her own verse and polyphonic prose, Miss Lowell has been the inspiration of the several anthologies appearing under the title of ‘Some Imagists,’ in 1915, in 1916, and in 1917. It may be suspected that much of the propaganda of the imagistic school has had for its purpose a wish to advertise poetry in general—a conscious attempt to put the art before the public. Many of the critical dicta of Miss Lowell and her associates need not be taken too seriously, and it is significant that in her recent statements of poetic faith, as in the paragraphs she contributed to Mr. Morris’s ‘The Young Idea,’ Miss Lowell has seemed to fall back upon quite traditional theories of poetry. Next after her skillful efforts to call attention to this school, imagism has owed its vogue probably to the great reputation of Mr. Masters’s ‘Spoon River Anthology,’ which is written for the most part in unrhymed and unrhythmical lines. Strictly speaking, however, Mr. Masters is not an imagist, nor is his free verse different from the irregular lines of Wilfrid Gibson in England, who seems to be accommodating the free rhythms of Whitman to the dramatic exigencies of monologue and dialogue. Mr. Masters’s form is essentially not that of the lyric but rather that of the inscription; if he has any literary model, it is probably the type of epigram or epitaph found in the Greek anthology. In France the most eccentric practice of the liberated forms has been carried on by Paul Fort, who in his ‘Ballades de France’ has printed each alexandrine couplet as a prose paragraph, in order to secure a natural reading at first sight. The discovery of rhymes and rhythms embedded in what looked to be prose, affords the reader, until he is accustomed to it, a certain piquant shock. In America this device of the hidden rhyme has been employed by newspaper poets for purposes of humor. But aside from this peculiarity in the manner of printing, Paul Fort’s verse is not very different from any other which takes a fairly free attitude toward the traditional rhythms. In America an experiment in rhythm quite out of tune with imagism, indeed diametrically opposed to it, has been carried on by Mr. Vachel Lindsay, who attempts to turn to the purposes of art the ecstatic declamation and the fantastic accompaniment of the camp meeting, the minstrel show, and other wells of spasmodic eloquence. The power of his poem on General Booth entering Heaven, or of his poem on the Congo, lies in the adaptability of his work for recitation. He supplies stage directions, as it were, for the reading; and before many American audiences his own interesting rendering of his work has demonstrated the possibilities of his verse as vehicle for recitation. Whether these possibilities are capable of any great development, remains to be seen. The subject matter of his work, it is not unfair to say, is of slight importance in comparison with its external qualities. His first two volumes were privately published: ‘Rhymes to be Traded for Bread,’ 1912, and ‘The Village Magazine,’ 1912. The books which have made his reputation are ‘General Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems,’ 1913, and ‘The Congo and Other Poems,’ 1915.  14
  No discussion of novelties in style in recent poetry—indeed, no discussion of recent poetry from any point of view—can overlook the beautiful work of Rabindranath Tagore. He is an admirer of Whitman, and he writes the best prose poems of these times, in rhythms indescribably subtle, yet highly individual. From the publication of his ‘Gitanjali’ in 1913 (privately printed the year before), to his recent drama ‘The Cycle of Spring,’ 1917, he has fascinated the English-speaking world with his haunting music, his fine humor, and his native mysticism. Indeed, the reader of his poems might be tempted at first to class him with those metaphysicians already glanced at, whose genius is for the renunciation of this world; but a closer study suggests that it may be only the Western world that he renounces. What the influence of his gentle philosophy may be, or to what extent the West will accept him as a sage, remains to be seen. There can hardly be question, however, of his literary skill, especially in the realm of pure style.  15
  Alfred Austin, laureate of England from 1896 till his death in 1913, is a good illustration of the persistence of traditional verse writing, on a level somewhat over the mediocre, more or less untouched by contemporary experiments in verse. Austin’s literary career, beginning in 1870 with a volume of criticism on the poetry of the period, extended into the twentieth century, with official poems from time to time and with some dramatic writing, none of which was of the importance desirable in the successor of Tennyson. He had considerable literary taste, however, and he was devoted to those ideals of patriotism and ethics which seem the irreducible minimum in the English poet’s equipment. A more gifted man is Lawrence Binyon, who since 1890, when he won the Newdigate prize at Oxford with his poem ‘Persephone,’ has published a volume almost annually. He is a poet of very genuine lyrical gifts, who has combined scholarly interest and interest in art with an interest in the modern world. In his recent volumes he has shown a maturity not found in all of his work; but perhaps his ‘London Visions,’ two volumes published in 1895 and 1898, are still representative of his best. The present laureate, Robert Bridges, by far the most scholarly poet writing in English to-day, comes under the general condemnation, if one so chooses, of all academic poets. He also illustrates the virtues of the academic mind. His grip on his craft is illustrated not only by his own practice but by his study of Milton’s prosody, a standard contribution to the science of versification. His own poems have a small but loyal audience among those who appreciate subtlety, meditation, and sensitiveness to the more spiritual aspects of life, but he illustrates at times, as has already been suggested, the tendency to retreat altogether from life into this world of scholarly tradition. No Englishman writing to-day has won quite the welcome that Stephen Phillips received on the appearance of his ‘Marpessa’ and his ‘Christ in Hades,’ in 1897; and none has equalled the performance of Alfred Edward Housman in his ‘Shropshire Lad,’ 1896.  16
  In France the most important poets of recent years have been Albert Samain and August Angellier. Samain, who died young, made a quite secure place for himself as a practicer of the most artistic tradition of French verse. His merits are those of the artist essentially, and to the foreigner he will seem perhaps a French artist rather than a universal singer; but the perfection of his work has conferred upon him already some of the glamour that belongs to the immortals, even to the minor immortals. Angellier was a figure of much greater importance, not only to France but to the world. His early studies in English literature, especially his life of Burns, 1893, distinguished him as a scholar in the cosmopolitan sense, but his large equipment in scholarship is but slight in comparison with his immense poetic genius. He had a sympathy for all the best in literary tradition, and his four volumes under the general title of ‘Dans la Lumière Antique,’ 1905, consist of poems on classical subjects which reproduce with quite unusual success a vital Greek atmosphere. His remarkable romance in sonnet sequence, ‘L’Amie Perdue,’ 1896, is the story of a very modern love, told in a modern setting with emphasis upon modern psychology. No other experiment in accommodating contemporary fiction to a traditional verse form can be compared with this volume, unless it be Meredith’s sonnet sequence ‘Modern Love.’ But Angellier’s romance is larger in thought and nobler in mood, and, it should be added, more completely modern in its treatment, than Meredith’s. His volume of lyrics, ‘Le Chemin des Saisons,’ 1903, is also filled with the modern spirit. It illustrates the variety of his lyric gift, the freedom with which he finds his subjects in contemporary life, and the mastery with which he renders them in the best traditions of art. Though other poets writing in French, such as Verhaeren or Cammaerts, for the moment hold more of the attention of the literary world, it may well be thought that Angellier has won for himself a more permanent place in world literature. Émile Cammaerts, the Belgian poet, has come into general reputation through his ‘Belgian Poems,’ two volumes of war verse, 1915, 1916, which are remarkable for the beauty of their style and still more for the beauty of their spirit. He has striven to render the passionate sense of injury to be expected in the Belgians to-day without bitterness and without the grosser forms of wrath or revenge; and he has contrived in some of his avowedly religious poems a most beautiful if exotic combination of mediæval religion and modern patriotism. Indeed, it is in his ‘Noels’ and other strictly religious poems that he seems most exquisite and most truly an interpreter of his people to-day. Modern in his technique, he makes use of irregular verse forms, sometimes of poetic prose, but the spirit of his work is even more traditional than Verhaeren’s, and to understand him the reader needs no special knowledge of Belgian conditions, nor of Belgian ideals.  17
  In the United States the older traditions of poetic art have been maintained by a number of writers who are recognized for their openness to new ideas and to new phases of society in modern times, but who nevertheless practice the technique of the masters. The chief of these, probably the most distinguished poet in America, is George Edward Woodberry, whose work from his first volume, ‘The North Shore Watch,’ 1870, to his recent sonnet sequence, ‘Ideal Passion,’ 1917, has been unfailingly in the highest mood of beauty and of idealism. Mr. Woodberry has often been described as carrying on the tradition of the New England poets, and as being the successor in American criticism of his friend and guide, James Russell Lowell; but the fact is that Mr. Woodberry owes far more to such romantic poets as Shelley and to such philosophers as Plato, and to such critics as Walter Pater, than he owes to any American writer. His cosmopolitan love of books, especially his love of the Roman tradition in literature from Virgil to the writers of modern Italy, has set him apart in his own country as a peculiarly cultured and expert singer. In criticism he has supplemented his writing in verse by a single-hearted expounding of the great poets, and by a reluctance, unfortunately too rare, to write on trivial or ignoble subjects. His fame in contemporary American literature seems to be a reputation of esteem rather than a vigorous popularity, and certainly in a day which has been fascinated by the advertising caprices of the various mushroom schools his quiet and self-contained art must expect to abide its time. But the sum of his work is large enough to make him a memorable figure in his day, and his influence upon studious and thoughtful people is far beyond what the amount of his work would seem to guarantee. Somewhat in the same position as Mr. Woodberry, though far less distinguished in his native poetic endowment, is Mr. George Santayana, the philosopher. The remarkable brilliance of his masterpiece, ‘The Life of Reason,’ a modern restatement of the Aristotelian philosophy, and the charm of such poetical and philosophical criticisms as his essays on Lucretius and Dante and Goethe, have made it easy for most of his admirers quite to overlook his book of ‘Sonnets,’ 1894, his Shelleyesque drama, ‘Lucifer,’ and his volume of verse entitled ‘The Hermit of Carmel,’ 1901. He is always a philosopher, for the moment writing verse, whereas Mr. Woodberry is the poet with philosophical leanings. The result is that Mr. Santayana is peculiarly incisive and comprehensive, sometimes, alas, peculiarly cynical in his criticism; whereas Mr. Woodberry is in his essays inspiring and enlightening but less incisive, and Mr. Santayana in his verse is intellectual in a very beautiful way, but with far less charm and emotional power. These two are the most scholarly, and from some points of view the most successful, poets America at present can boast of. To find any other figure so individual, we should have to go back to Emily Dickinson, different as her exquisite work is from theirs.  18
  The tradition of Richard Hovey and the more recent memory of William Vaughan Moody illustrate the welcome which all countries are ready to pay to the well-equipped and scholarly youth, who is born with the poetic glamour, the romantic gleam, which an early death can only render more romantic. Hovey came into his reputation with his ‘Songs from Vagabondia,’ (1894) in collaboration with Bliss Carman; to this day his delightful lyric gift in lighter themes is probably what most readers remember him for. But he had large ambitions to rework Arthurian and other poetic material in modern versions, and in some of the volumes which he completed before his death he went a good distance toward accomplishment in these adventures. His poetry had a poignant quality even in its less important passages, which makes one think of him as one of the most individual of our poets; even some of the writers whose poetic aspiration seems more fervent, perhaps more lofty than his, have missed the peculiar inevitableness of thought and verse that he often achieved; and perhaps he represents a phase of the American character which has had too little attention—that love of adventure transfigured with romance even of a literary kind, which leads young people in the United States to make expeditions to the shrines of European poets or to the other historic scenes—which leads them, in other words, to take on a kind of spiritual attitude toward Vagabondia, raising the accidents of the road almost to the dignity of a knightly pilgrimage. Vagabondia in the ideal of Hovey and Bliss Carman is far different from the casual wanderings of the jaded voyager, such as one finds in certain contemporary novels which still rework the theme of the picaresque. In these poets it represents a desire for the kind of spiritual outing not easily enjoyed in a young and therefore matter-of-fact society.  19
  William Vaughan Moody had nothing of this note of vagabondia, but he made a very earnest and at times a remarkably successful attempt to transfigure commonplace experiences or the common life of his country into poetic dignity. His early volumes, devoted to elaborations of the myth of Prometheus, showed that he, like the other Harvard poets, Mr. Woodberry and Mr. Santayana, began his poetic career under the influence of Greek poetry and under the immediate suggestion of Shelley. The ‘Fire Bringer,’ 1904, and its companion volumes are such failures as academic dramas must usually be judged; that is, they are admirable in execution and in intention, but somewhat off the highway of contemporary ideals and needs; but his volume of ‘Poems,’ 1901, containing the great ‘Ode in Time of Hesitation’, showed that he had interpreted the life of his time, and in that particular poem he had made out of a national problem, a really great work of art. Perhaps no other single poem in the last fifty years has stated the political ideals of America with such power. Moody’s later work, chiefly in the drama, may from some points of view be considered unimportant; but his play ‘The Great Divide’ proved again his ability to use American material for the expression of American ideals. Whether or not the picture of his country which is conveyed by his poems and by his plays is accurate, there can be little doubt that the emotions called out by them, the ideals which they encourage in the reader and in the audience, are typical of his people and of his time.  20
  Somewhat in the tradition of all these poets are Ridgely Torrence and Percy MacKaye. Mr. Torrence has recently (1917) produced three interesting plays dealing with the psychology of the negro; his future work may lie in the drama. But he has been known for some years, by such volumes as ‘El Dorado,’ 1903, and ‘Abélard and Héloïse,’ 1907, as a writer of charming verse, with lyrical rather than dramatic merits. His first volume, ‘The House of a Hundred Lights,’ 1900, is little known, yet it is his most important work—in some ways a remarkable work. He there gives a series of picturesque reflections on life in oriental couplets, after Omar’s manner, but with such vivacity and mischief that the reader is inclined to take the verses as a commentary on Fitzgerald. The slender volume is not to be forgotten in any reckoning of American verse or of American humor.  21
  Mr. MacKaye is perhaps the most industrious practicer of verse in the United States to-day. He has used his admirable equipment in a very useful and probably far-reaching propaganda to make poetry a natural expression of civic and community interests. Beginning with marked success as a lyric poet, he devoted some time to the writing of dramas of a poetic and lofty kind, and to critical writings which had for their purpose the cultivation of a better idea of playwriting and play-seeing. Of recent years he has given himself to the composing chiefly of community masques, the most remarkable of which were the masque at St. Louis, 1914, and the Shakespeare masque in New York City, 1916. The service he has rendered in stimulating interest in this type of art and in teaching large numbers of people the poetic possibilities of their environment, can hardly be overestimated, and the nature of the sacrifice which he has made to forward this large idea can be understood only by those who know at something like first hand the enormous labor which goes into the organization of community drama. Numerous writers of less distinction have aided in the work which he began, so that to-day there is in progress in the United States a well-defined movement—to be sure quite as conscious as other twentieth-century movements—to domesticate poetry, as it were, to make it serve purposes of social or patriotic or religious ideals.  22
  The indirect influence of this movement must be traced of course in other arts than that of language—in the encouragement of community music; in the increased demand for an artistic standard in processions and parades; in the intelligent cultivation of community dances, and in the decorative arts. Probably the poetry of the future, whether in America or elsewhere, and whether or not it is the work of academically trained poets, will pass from the academic tradition to the service of society in such ways as Mr. MacKaye’s work has indicated. The symptoms of this new use for poetry are too many to name, but important among them is a recognition now quite common, that poetry should be enjoyed primarily by the ear, and that before poetry can come into its own as a natural art, the people must cultivate deliberately the art of speech, and must train the ear to be critical of the spoken word. In the attention to language American poetry has been deficient; art like that of Stefan George or of Albert Samain or even of such a minor contemporary English writer as Walter Delamare has been altogether too foreign in the American craft, or where it has been present, as in the work of Mr. Woodberry, it has not been recognized at its full value; from the time of Emerson and of Whitman, American poetry has concerned itself almost entirely with its subject matter, and with the service its ideas could render to society.  23
  It is hardly to be expected that in this country any more than in Europe poetry should again be practiced unconsciously or without meditation. Even the occasional poet like Rupert Brooke in England, who is hailed as a born singer, on closer inspection proves to be an intentional singer like his comrades in the self-conscious modern world. But it is probable that the self-consciousness of the poets may take a large and noble direction, and that if poetry is never again to be unpremeditated, it may at least be devoted in somewhat the same sense as the dramatic writings of Sophocles or Euripides were devoted, to consecration of national ceremonies and to the expression of contemporary ideals. At least a hope in this direction is afforded by many of the innumerable recent poems on the War. Over every country engaged in the conflict an avalanche of verse, it seems, has swept, sometimes spontaneous, but usually compelled by a conscious patriotism,—by a desire to justify a cause, or to form an opinion or to inspire action. The quality of this writing is for the most part negligible, yet the phenomenon is a very striking one, that in such a crisis of civilization, in an age when the practical values of poetry have not seemed widely recognized, men everywhere should have turned to verse as a means of controlling or of exciting opinion. Lissauer’s Hate Song against England is probably the best known of all these lyrics. Its vigor and a certain rhetorical cleverness would explain its success, though such a frank avowal of hate would in any case be enough to attract attention to a poem widely accepted by a warring nation. But nobler poems on the war have been written in Germany and in the other countries; perhaps Masefield’s (1914) will seem to later readers the most substantial record of national feeling and the most beautiful service poetry has rendered the country in these dark years.  24
 
  EDITORIAL NOTE.—Of the recent poets discussed by Professor Erskine in the foregoing article, the following will be found represented in the LIBRARY by biographical and critical essays with accompanying selections: Verhaeren, Maeterlinck, Dehmel, Liliencron, Austin, Bridges, Gibson, Masefield, Stephen Phillips, Francis Thompson, Synge, Yeats, Tagore, Cawein, Edwin Robinson, MacKaye, Moody, and Woodberry. Mr. Lloyd Morris’s essay on the Irish Renaissance deals with the work of a large number of Irish poets as well as with that of Synge and Yeats. Professor Chandler’s essay on the ‘Drama in the Early Twentieth Century’ includes a number of poets. In connection with the essays on ‘Drama in the Early Twentieth Century’ and ‘Poetry in the Early Twentieth Century,’ the reader’s attention should be called to that on ‘Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century’ by Mr. Henry W. Boynton. These three essays taken together provide a remarkable summary, interpretation, and criticism of literary movements and tendencies of the present time. Further guides to reading and full bibliographical information are to be found in the section on ‘Early Twentieth Century Literature’ in the Student’s Course in Literature.  25
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.